“This looks and smells horrible!” Jim exclaims, with an exasperated look on his face. I look at the mound of gooey, stinky, greenish-yellow dog poop inside the enclosure we are supposed to clean and nod in affirmation. Jim, a soft-spoken gentleman in his mid-40s with fine brown hair and eyes of the same color, is from the UK. His eyes, usually sparkling with kindness, are now crinkled with disgust. Yes, we are both revolted, but we are also determined to not let this repulsion get in the way of our task. We think of the dogs who need clean kennels to stay in, and the task no longer feels “undoable.” It’s 9:45 am and we are engaged in one of the first jobs that need to be done at the animal recovery center: scooping up all the poop from the various enclosures that house dogs.

Welcome to Volunteering at Peepal Farm 🙂

The first time I visited the farm was in 2016. Even though that was just a short visit spanning a couple of days, I left deeply impacted. Since then, I have been wanting to return to the farm as a volunteer and spend more time there. Finally in July 2019, I land at the farm again and stay for a good three weeks that are filled with meaningful work, interactions with like-minded people from across the world, lots of fun time spent with animals, leisurely long walks on picturesque routes, and hours spent introspecting, chatting with the demons inside of me.

Peepal Farm

Peepal Farm, located in Dhanotu, a small village in Himachal Pradesh, is an ambitious project dedicated to promoting “good work” and alleviating suffering. Founded by three vegans, Robin, Shivani, and Jo, it includes a stray animal recovery center, an organic farm, and a small business, among other ventures. They also have a low impact farmstay where people interested in volunteering at the farm, working with animals and experiencing a simple village life can stay by paying a nominal rent. More on Peepal Farm hereClick here for their Facebook page.

My Homestay

All the volunteer rooms at the farmstay are occupied when I arrive, and I am allotted a room in a homestay instead. I get an independent room, bathroom, and kitchen set though I never venture into the kitchen—I am getting my meals at the farm.

My homestay is owned by a friendly middle-aged couple who share their home with two adorable dogs, Tuffy and Simba.

I totally enjoy my stay there! Not only do I have these two doggos to cuddle with, but am also showered with affection by the homeowners. Since it is mango season, the couple gets me juicy, divine-tasting “desi” mangoes picked from the trees in the village known for their especially delicious fruits.

I also gorge on sweet, ripe jamuns they pick for me from a relative’s garden that has a big jamun tree 🙂

The Volunteering Work

The volunteers at the farm are expected to put in four hours of work daily, mostly in the morning session. You’re generally free by 12:30 pm and have the rest of the day to yourself. Rilee, an American lady in her 20s, is the volunteer coordinator in charge of assigning us our daily tasks. Friendly, patient, and polite while also being assertive, she introduces me to the other volunteers and briefs me about the rules, regulations, and work ethic we are supposed to adhere to at the farm. A vegan who has grown up with cats and dogs, she seems to be extremely at ease handling all the animals, even the aggressive and fussy ones.

Daily at 7:45 am, the volunteers assemble at the dog section to take some of the healthy dogs on a walk along a beautiful narrow road flanked by lush green fields and tall trees on both the sides.

Chatting happily with your co-volunteers, you inhale the freshness of the morning as you come across insects, butterflies, and dragonflies of myriad colors hovering over the clusters of fragrant flowers blooming on the roadside bushes. Sometimes a light drizzle adds to the magic of the morning walk!

After having tea and breakfast, we begin our other chores. Scooping dog poop from the various kennels and disposing of it safely is among the first tasks. The volunteers are assigned this work on a rotation basis. Whenever it’s my turn, I’m partnered with either Jim or Laura, a hardworking, vibrant young lady from Australia, who, in my opinion, is an expert “poop-scooper.” Unsurprisingly, this is something that could get exceedingly overwhelming for first-timers. While I have shared a home with a dog long ago and have some experience dealing with poop, I was totally unprepared for what awaited me at the dog enclosures the first time.

Let’s just get this clear: when you have dogs and pups with various health conditions, DO NOT expect all the animals to excrete golden-brown, soft solid mounds of easily scoopable poop! Over the course of my stay, I scoop up runny brownish diarrhea, stinky greenish-yellow slush with pieces of undigested food, pebble-like bits of puppy poop, and excreta with long translucent worms wriggling in it. Disgusting? Yes. The entire experience is an extremely humbling one. But weirdly enough, I feel something shifting inside of me as the days pass by. It’s not about me anymore; it’s about them. From thinking “OMG, this is so disgusting!” I go to “Oh! Poor Mia needs the kennel cleaned ASAP!” This shift in the way I think intensifies the connection I have always felt with dogs, and I’m grateful for that! Once we are done with the poop-scooping, we move on to other work (obviously, after a thorough scrubbing!)

I’m assigned farm work one day while on most of the other days I help out in the animal section. To be frank, I do not enjoy working on the farm and I’m not proud to admit that I while away my time watching the grasshoppers, snails, butterflies, ladybirds, and other little critters instead of focusing on the task I’m supposed to do: weeding!

Thankfully enough (I know I’m being selfish here!), I don’t get farm work assigned ever again.

Continued in Volunteering at Peepal Farm (Part II)